Surf's Up: Catching a Wave, Burning Calories


Finding balance and letting go of fear, freelance writer Alisa Blackwood shares her first surfing experience.

Surfing has never been at the top of my to-do list. Maybe it has something to do with my fear of sharks (those Jaws memories run deep). But during a visit to Huntington Beach, California—a.k.a. Surf City USA—my thoughts couldn't help but wander to the toned thighs, abs, and arms that could be mine by paddling the ocean and finding my balance on the waves. Toss in a tanned, buff surfing coach, and who could say no?

My instructor from Toes on the Nose surf school fits the profile: Charles "Charlos" Bentley is ultra-laid-back and resembles a young Kevin Bacon with stereotypical surfer-dude sun-bleached hair. Charlos is so skilled on his board that he can surf while doing a headstand—so I know I'm in good hands.

Surfing 101 starts on a chilly summer morning with Charlos teaching a small group of us the art of the "pop-up." We begin with our boards on the sand, lying belly-down atop them in a push-up-ready position. "Keep your abs and glutes tight," Charlos tells us, as he demonstrates how to spring from our push-up pose to a squat then to standing position. My first few tries are far from graceful, and I wonder how in the world I'm going to pull this off while balancing on a board on the water.

A few minutes later, we're wet. Charlos gives the back of my board a push into a small oncoming wave. I paddle once with each arm as he tells me to, then try to pop up. I make it only to my knees and balance for a second or two before wiping out, swallowing a mouthful of saltwater. But I can't help laughing when I bob to the surface.

Next Page: Collecting my Zen [ pagebreak ]Eight tries later, I still haven't managed to get to my feet and frustration's beginning to take hold. "You need to stop overthinking it," advises an experienced surfer who's hanging out on the beach. He suggests I take a break to "collect my Zen." That seems a little hokey. But hey, why not? So I paddle out and just sit on my board, feeling the rhythm of the ocean and warmth of the sun. I realize that in order to learn how to stand, I have to stop being afraid I'm going to fall and wipe out. With a deep breath for courage and my Zen collected, I'm ready to give it another go.

I paddle back into a wave, and this time something clicks. I forget about wiping out and push up. Suddenly, I'm standing on my board, exhilarated, riding the wave as if I'd been doing it for years. Filled with confidence, I glide smoothly all the way to shore, stepping off my board with ease when I reach the sand.

The adrenaline rush almost makes me forget about my sore hamstrings, abs, and triceps. I paddle back into the ocean for more, riding my board to shore again and again, with a new sense of power and strength—and not just in my abs.

What's in it for you (besides fun)
Nearly 2 million people surfed in 2004, and 45% of them were women—up 8% percent from 2002.

The quick bursts of activity in surfing burn between 500 and 800 calories an hour. It's also a full-body workout—hitting your upper body, core, and quad muscles—and a great way to improve your balance. Ready to hit the waves? A 2-hour group lesson will run you $80 to $120, including surfboard and wet suit (when necessary). For more how-to information, visit